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Water Planning & Distribution

Ancestral Puebloan Water

Click the Fluent Water Facts below to learn more about Colorado's water history.

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Harvesting Water at Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde may be Colorado’s most famous prehistoric site, and its inhabitants, the Ancestral Puebloans, understood the need to store and manage water. People first settled in Mesa Verde around 550 A.D, eager to grow maize in the area’s rich soil. Maize was an insurance policy against famine, but it required water throughout the summer.

Mesa Verde receives about 18 inches of rainfall annually. Its canyons supply flowing water only during storms or spring runoff. People could supplement this with water from small springs or from shallow, hand-dug wells. But the ingenious Ancestral Puebloans engineered larger-scale solutions to their water problems.

Engineering Marvels

Around 750 A.D., the Ancestral Puebloans built a reservoir in Morefield Canyon by digging a shallow pond in the canyon bottom. When rain fell, it flowed down the canyon floor and filled the pond. Just like reservoirs today, this reservoir needed constant maintenance. Runoff carried silt and sand into the pond, limiting its water storage capacity. The Puebloans regularly dredged the reservoir, using sticks, antlers, stones, and baskets. Dredging required both energy and organization.

The Ancestral Puebloans also built two reservoirs on the mesa top. These did not have the advantage of a natural channel to collect the water, as canyon bottoms do. Modern engineers probably wouldn't attempt such a project. But the Puebloans must have recognized that human foot traffic could compact the silt and clay soils that, when puddled with rainfall, would float up to form an impervious surface, allowing nearly 100% runoff. A half-acre of compacted area could create enough runoff for a successful water harvest.

Drought Brings Dramatic Change

By 1100 A.D., the Ancestral Puebloans had stopped using Morefield Canyon reservoir and one of the mesa top reservoirs. The years from 1135 to 1180 were especially dry, and women needed to trek 500 feet down into a canyon for water from a spring. The Puebloans moved away from the mesa tops and into the famous cliff dwellings, relying on groundwater from springs, seeps, and small hand-dug wells.

Around 1275 A.D., another drought hit, and by 1300 A.D. Mesa Verde was deserted. Its people probably moved into the northern Rio Grande basin, near present-day Santa Fe and Taos.

The Ancestral Puebloans proved that survival was possible in Colorado’s dry southwest. Water was the key to success. But collecting enough water required considerable engineering, careful maintenance, and community effort.

Further Reading

Wright Water Engineers has conducted research on Ancestral Puebloan water sites throughout the Four Corners region.   Read reports of their findings at   http://wrightpaleo.com/wordpress/publications/.

To learn more about Mesa Verde National Park, visit www.nps.gov/meve.

Water Origin Resources

The Citizen's Guide to Where your Water Comes From explains how weather patterns and aquifers supply the water we use. Learn more about the intricate distribution systems Coloradans have developed to deliver water to our farms and cities.  Flip through the online version or purchase a copy.

Citizen s Guide  4a40f4c93383c

The Citizen's Guide to Colorado's Transbasin Diversions highlights the history, costs and benefits of these controversial water projects, from both an historic and current point of view. Flip through the online version or purchase a copy.

Transbasin Diversions


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